Analysis of "Operating Room" by John Reed

Updated on December 29, 2017
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Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

John Reed
John Reed | Source

John Reed

"Operating Room" is a short poem John Reed based on his life experiences so it has an authentic feel which contrasts strongly with its rather creepy, surreal atmosphere.

At the time it was published—August 1917 in the magazine Poetry—world war and revolution were very much a part of the fabric of life, hence the somewhat grim and chilling mood of the poem.

John Reed, journalist and poet, was raised in a wealthy family home in Oregon but became disillusioned with his privileged life and sought answers to his probing questions about society's inequalities further afield in Europe and eventually, the Soviet Union.

He became a staunch supporter of socialism and was for a time an active participant as a journalist in the Bolshevik Revolution, writing a book Ten Days That Shook The World in 1917 which was later used to create Reds, the movie.

It is still considered a top work of American journalism by some, despite being recommended for the 'workers of the world' by none other than Lenin.

Returning to Moscow as a communist a little later, Reed succumbed to typhoid and died in 1920. He is buried in the Kremlin Wall Necropolis, a rare privilege for an American.

This is a poem with unusual language but still impresses because of its imagery and tone.

Operating Room

Sunlight floods the shiny many-windowed place,

Coldly glinting on flawless steel under glass,

And blaring imperially on the spattered gules

Where kneeling men grunt as they swab the floor.

Startled eyes of nurses swish by noiselessly,

Orderlies with cropped heads swagger like murderers;

And three surgeons, robed and masked mysteriously,

Lounge gossiping of guts, and wish it were lunch-time.

Beyond the porcelain door, screaming mounts crescendo—

Case 4001 coming out of the ether,

Born again half a man, to spend his life in bed.


"Operating Room" gives the reader a clear insight into the observing mind of the speaker, who is perhaps a patient or a visitor or even someone simply looking in through one of the many windows.

The first stanza sets the scene; a keen description of the operating room is delivered in long lines as the sunlight illuminates glass and steel. It is a somewhat cruel light, bringing no relief—only a loud coldness.

There has been an operation and blood has been spilt because the men are working hard to clear it up. That word gules probably refers to the sign of the Red Cross which is, in heraldic terms, cross gules, a red cross. Swab is a term often given to sailors who had the duty of swabbing the decks of ships.

The reader is not given any details—the operation has been bloody but no information is put forward—but if the nurses have been startled it must have been a pretty profound experience for them.

Orderlies swagger, which is to walk with an arrogant or confident air—but the word murderers suggests so much more, something sinister and wrong.

Surgeons, having done their job, are lounging (sat relaxedly) and talking about guts, that is, stomachs and intestines (presumably of the patient?) or guts, showing bravery and courage. They're hungry after their work.

  • Lines 7 and 8 show the stark contrast between the ordinary and the extraordinary which is a theme of this poem. The surgeons are hungry, they're only human after all, and this implies that the day for them is just routine. They must eat, despite their interest in guts.

As if to overshadow all of the previous proceedings, screams are heard from a patient—the patient? The reader is given no name—only an impersonal number, 4001—another one for the department of statistics.

He must be in tremendous pain for he's regaining consciousness, a sort of rebirth, but he's not a whole man now - he had his legs amputated and is destined to spend a long time in bed?

  • There is a dispassionate approach to the whole affair. From the glinting sunlight on flawless steel to the lounging surgeons and on to case 4001, this is an objective, almost dark, perspective on human tragedy and human triumph.


"Operating Room" is a short poem of 11 lines, split into three stanzas. It is a free verse poem, having no set rhyme scheme or regular meter (metre in British English).


The lines are overall quite long, varying from 10 - 13 syllables, and there is a mix of iamb, anapaest and trochee, producing steady then slow progress, and vice versa. There is a jarring effect at times, making the rhythm anything but consistently smooth.

For example, lines 3 and 4:

And blar / ing imperi / ally / on the spat / tered gules

Where knee / ling men / grunt as / they swab / the floor.

Line 3 has two anapaests and three iambs so is iambic pentameter. This line stretches out, the adverb and contrasting long and short vowel sounds combining to produce stark contrast.

Line 4 is all iambic except for the inverted trochee which stalls the reader a little and puts emphasis on the noisy men.


Some are put off by the overuse of adverbs, but in this poem, they seem to work by slowing the reader down as the long vowels come into play.

Note the first stanza and the hard g in glass/gules/grunt.

There is the sh sound threading throughout the poem: shiny/swish/wish/crescendo.

Note also the internal sounds: flawless/floor/orderlies/porcelain door.


Stanza 2: masked mysteriously.....gossiping of guts.....wish it were.


Stanza 2: swagger like murderers.


The Everyday and the Extraordinary





The poem is serious in tone, suggesting a clinical and distanced approach, especially from the surgeons who are simply going about their normal business. To them, it is a job, nothing more.

Overall there is a dark and foreboding feel.

© 2017 Andrew Spacey


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